Perhaps your municipality regards online meeting agendas as all style, no substance. The quest for substantive improvements, however, should actually send responsible officials to electronically post meeting agendas sooner, rather than later. Online meeting agendas bring local governments a host of measurable benefits.
Putting your meeting agendas online brings them into a far more high-traffic neighborhood. How often do you walk by the bulletin board outside Town Hall? How often do you log on to your computer? As you multiply many times over the pairs of eyes that view your meeting announcement and agenda, you’ll see meeting turnout soar.
Not only is it easier to find an online agenda; for many constituents, accessing any meeting information whatsoever will come as a luxury that they can finally afford. Imagine you suffer from agoraphobia. Or you are a disfigured burn victim. Or you cannot walk. Traditional posting of a paper-based agenda outside a public building inadvertently made engagement with civic meetings completely out of reach for you.
An online agenda levels the playing field. Now, homebound citizens can keep track of upcoming meetings, submit questions online and watch video of the meeting’s proceedings. You show the public that you mean business when you talk about commitment to inclusion and diversity. More important, more participants bring more energy and more ideas to your work.
Younger adults also respond more to online agendas. Often, only middle-aged and geriatric citizens came to meetings so predictably stodgy that Amy Poehler struck a chord when she played on that reputation to make viewers laugh in Parks and Recreation. Local governments with online agendas are finding to their delight that an under-40 crowd is participating in meetings for the first time. They will now associate meetings with all things that the internet connotes to them. Suddenly, civic engagement seems dynamic and cool.
Think of the labor and expense that go into assembling a paper-based board packet:
That’s a lot of time and money! Heaven help her if anyone makes a last-minute change to any materials.
An online agenda asks her to drag-and-drop background readings into a central virtual depot. The time saved is staggering. As is the money saved on photocopies and postage. Many chairs find that they can even reduce their payroll by hiring administrative staff for far fewer hours.
What’s more, board members can make better use of the attached materials. Some board portals make agenda attachments fully searchable. Typing in a keyword prompts a meta-search through multiple files in varied formats to find every instance of the word. Through the same portal, with the same ease, a director can even search an entire online archive of historical records – legislation, maps, reports, RFPs, spreadsheets and more.
Easier access could spell trouble, as most counties and towns position their agendas and attachments on a public-facing website housed on the portal platform. The public can’t see the highly sensitive information that the board must review! If the platform provides role-based authorizations, those fears are dashed. A scrubbed version of a document appears on the screen of anyone in the role of “public” viewer, while board members get a more detailed version of the document by clicking on the same icon.
Who reads the minutes of past meetings? A curious citizen, journalist or researcher would ordinarily have to take time away from work to find the minutes in a binder deep in the bowels of a public building. On the same platform where online agendas are stored, however, meeting minutes come into plain view on screen. What’s more, a robust platform can even seamlessly integrate a filmed recording of the entire meeting. When the board voluntarily provides such footage in such an accessible location, transparency reaches a whole new level.
The paper that it takes to create paper-based board packets destroys trees at the rate of 17 reams per tree (Conservatree). Mailing the packets consumes a lot of gasoline; the USPS reports that it used 171 million gallons of gas in 2015 (USPS). Even ink has a petroleum source! (Conservatree) All the while, we face a life-or-death race to decrease carbon dioxide and reduce carbon emissions. It’s not farfetched to imagine a Martian looking on and assuming we were parasites, foolishly killing our host. Going green shows that your local government is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Early open meeting laws required posting a paper copy of a meeting agenda by a set time in a public location. As that was the best we could do, we didn’t even notice how limited such “openness” was. An online presence extends a bridge to those formerly disenchanted or disenfranchised. For that reason, state after state is rewriting its open meeting laws to require online meeting agendas. As for school boards, so for municipalities: National School Boards Association (NSBA) attorney Mark Blom warns that it’s natural to expect more and more state-level open meeting laws to be updated soon for the digital age (Fleming).
Online meeting agendas bring substantive benefits to local governments. From citizen engagement to heightened transparency to environmental stewardship, a municipality that harnesses the power of this tool will soon do far more with far less.
Conservatree, “How much paper can be made from a tree?” at http://conservatree.org/learn/EnviroIssues/TreeStats.shtml
Fleming, Nora, “School Board Transparency a Challenge in Digital Age,” Education Week July 5, 2018
United States Postal Service, “Vehicle Fuel Consumption,” at https://about.usps.com/publications/sar2015/sar2015/sar2016_doc_021.htm